Representation of Ethnic Groups in Peaceful Pluralism

(The latest version of this page is at Pattern Descriptions.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6746.htm)

An ethnic group, as defined previously (4.4.1), is a term which recognises that people who share the same racial, tribal, cultural and religious categorisations may also share some moral values.  Membership of an ethnic group is not voluntary and it may not play a large part in a person’s life.  There are some organisations, such as churches and expatriate clubs, which provide a focus for preserving a specific aspect of culture and which provide supportive relationships for their members; if these organisations overtly exert political pressure they are classified as ‘ethnic interest groups’ in this book.  Ethnic groups, though, might have no formal organisations and might play no active role in the governance structure:

·      Ethnic issues should not often affect the Political Dimension.  In the Political Dimension it is more relevant to express a wish about how the country should be run than it is to assert identity.  People’s preferences on issues such as health, security and the economy are not obviously affected by their ethnicity.

·      It can be argued that no ethnic organisation fully represents all the people of that ethnicity.  Many people might not formally join any organisation that can claim their support or speak for them.  This is an example of a generic problem in the Political Dimension, of ensuring that the ‘silent majority’ is adequately represented in political negotiation; it is analysed at the end of this chapter (6.8.4). 

·      People in ethnic minorities may already feel that they are adequately represented.  They may trust a politician who comes from another group, or they may trust the integrity of the society and its systems.  If they know that politicians in the existing system are already showing concern for their interests, they may feel that they neither need nor want additional representation.

Nonetheless, it is safer and fairer to offer ethnic groups some form of political recognition on relevant issues – such as education – to avoid the risk of them feeling alienated. 

There are at least three ways of giving some form of political representation to ethnic groups:

·      It is possible to make arrangements to consult specific ethnic groups for issues which affect them:

      Existing ethnic organisations can be approached, although they may not be regarded as representative[1] and people who aren’t active members of an ethnic organisation may not recognise any group leader as representing them (which is the case with over half the Muslims in Britain,[2] for example). 

      Survey techniques could be used, provided that either there had been some mechanism for registering people’s ethnicity or that the sample size was large enough to include a statistically significant number of people in each ethnic group.

      New bodies can be set up to facilitate a particular consultation.  If the government tries to select its own representatives from ethnic groups, though, they might not be seen as having sufficient legitimacy – as is the case with the Muslim Council of Britain, which has been criticised by both Muslims and non-Muslims as having inappropriate representation.[3]

·      Ethnic nominees can be appointed to participate in government, as in the example of Anglican bishops having seats in the British House of Lords; (this example is contentious, raising questions of balance in representation).[4]

·      Political parties may be set up to represent ethnic groups in a democracy, though that can easily lead to identity politics (  It is sometimes better, however,  to have such representation than to deny it – as in the example of the Basque separatist group, ETA, which called an end to its ‘cease-fire’ and resumed a policy of violence in response to the Spanish courts preventing its political wing, Batasuna, from being represented in elections.[5]  The ETA statement announced this by describing the ban as “a fascism that left parties and citizens without rights”.[6]  This illustrates the propaganda impact of the suppression of political rights (irrespective of whether this was justifiable in those particular circumstances).

These three mechanisms are listed in an ascending sequence of the perceived importance given to ethnicity in politics, but possibly in descending order of effectiveness.   Consultation can ensure that there are legitimate ways of exerting influence, so that people feel that pressure can be applied within the system rather than feeling that they have to oppose the system itself; it is a policy which has had some success,[7] and it only brings ethnicity into politics when it is relevant – so it is compatible with having political parties which offer joystick politics (6.2.6). 

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 

[1] An article in the Economist on 31 August 2006, entitled Holding it together, gave an example of the difficulty of gathering a body which is perceived as being representative:

“Leicestershire's umbrella body is the Federation of Muslim Organisations, whose declared aim is to speak for all shades of Islam.  …..

The federation's role as a spokesman for Leicester Muslims has been challenged by its own former chairman, who has set up a rival body, the Muslim Forum.”

This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/7855183.

[2] A Policy Exchange survey published on 29 January 2007 and available in May 2014, entitled Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism, showed that 51% of Muslims believe that no organisation represents them (p. 80); it http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/category/item/living-apart-together-british-muslims-and-the-paradox-of-multiculturalism.

On the same day the BBC published some highlights from the survey, in an article entitled British Muslims poll: Key points, which was also available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6309983.stm.

[3] The Policy Exchange survey, quoted above, showed that only 6% of British Muslims believed that the Muslim Council of Britain represented their views (p. 80).

[4] The presence of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords is contentious.  In April 2011, the British Humanist Association published a report entitled Religious Representatives in the House Of Lords, which was available in May 2014 at http://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/1bha-briefing-bishops-in-the-lords-2011-final.pdf.  The report declared that:

“The presence of Church of England in the House of Lords entrenches a privileged position for one particular branch of one particular religion that cannot be justified in today’s society, which is not only multi-faith but increasingly non-religious.”

[5] The Guardian Unlimited website, in Q&A: Eta and Basque separatism in Spain, reported: “Eta's decision to end its ceasefire comes ten days after local elections in which its banned political wing, Batasuna, was not allowed to stand.” This article was published 5 June 2007, and was available in May 2014 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/spain/article/0,,780871,00.html.

[6] On 6 June 2007, The Telegraph published an article entitled Fears for tourists as Eta ends its ceasefire, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1553786/Fears-for-tourists-as-Eta-ends-its-ceasefire.html.

[7] The Economist article Holding it together (referred to above) noted that consultative governance can help to “keep Christians, Muslims and other faith groups on cordial terms” (despite its note of caution about the difficulty of representation).  The article was available in May 2014 at http://www.economist.com/node/7855183.